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Don’t Call It Spring: Turkey’s Decisive Turn Away From the West

This piece is an abbreviated analysis of a longer paper available in PDF here.

Erdogan’s autocratic shift is not accidental. It is the byproduct of a strongly majoritarian political culture, mostly foreign to Western countries. Protests weaken the Prime Minister and confine his ambitions. But they don’t erase the ‘Turkish exception’.

Even after everything that has occurred, the can be little doubt that history will be kind to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, undoubtedly the most important Turkish leader since Ataturk. Over the past decade Erdogan has gone a long way to at last fulfilling Turkey’s gigantic economic promise. Growth has averaged a whopping 5 percent a year since the Islamist AK Party took office in late 2002, with exports increasing nearly ten-fold. Over the past decade Turkish GDP per capita has tripled, with income levels per person now two times that of China and four times that of India. Perhaps best of all, this vast expansion of prosperity spread from Europeanized Istanbul to small business owners and the Anatolian heartland, the bastion of AK support.

The astonishing protests of the beginning of June 2013 quickly morphed from an environmental grousing about the destruction of sycamore trees into something more profound. Turkish rulers had grown high and mighty, wholly disregarding vast swathes (if not a majority) of Turkish public opinion. Recently this heavy-handedness can be seen over four distinct issues. First, the Prime Minister has set his heart on replacing the militarily imposed constitution of 1982. Likewise, over the absolutely essential issue of finally coming to terms with the 15 million Kurds living in the country, Erdogan has gone off on his own, unilaterally (and rightly in my view) trying to make peace with the PKK. Thirdly, Erdogan’s idiosyncratic foreign policy has gone badly off course, mainly due to his strong and early support for the rebels in Syria. But it is the fourth issue, the perceived slow Islamicisation of Turkey’s long-cherished secular political culture, which truly lit the embers of the massive June protests.

Erdogan’s behavior over these four crucial issues makes it clear that he —and indeed most Turks—have a far more majoritarian view of democracy than is common in most of the west. Erdogan seems to think that once he has won elections, he is entitled to do what he wishes until the next election. While this is a form of democratic government, in it’s downplaying of checks and balances and in its embrace of a far more authoritarian ethos, Erdogan is merely illustrating Turkish democratic exceptionalism. It is in this context that Erdogan’s political over-reaction must be viewed.

While the prime minister has managed to clear Taksim Square in Istanbul for the present, his problems are far from over. It is not as if Erdogan is likely to fall: this is not the Arab Spring. But that does not mean that there will not be a significant reckoning for the events of June 2013. In the immediate term Erdogan’s reputation as a successful Islamist reformer has been indelibly damaged, and along with it much of his domestic and foreign policy potency.

Domestically, a once unchallenged prime minister suddenly finds himself beset on all sides. With the presidential term of his longtime party ally and possible rival Abdullah Gul coming to an end in August 2014, Erdogan will likely have to find another way to stay in power, most likely changing party rules to allow him to remain prime minister. However, his dream of structurally changing the Turkish state by making it more presidential-based, more majoritarian and more authoritarian is likely at an end.

If this proves to be true, there is now a huge problem with the Kurdish peace process, predicated as it is on enshrining Kurdish rights in a document that may now never exist. Given the horrendous Turkish-Kurdish bloodletting of the past decades, it is unlikely that short of a new constitution the PKK will simply take Erdogan’s word for it that Kurdish rights will be respected. The laudable effort at reconciliation with the Kurds could well be an unintended casualty of the events of June 2013.

Finally, the convenient fiction of Turkey’s never-to-happen EU accession is also probably at an end. Since the long-awaited opening of talks with the EU in 2005, they have proceeded at a snail’s pace, with both sides seeming to lose interest. For this there is plenty of blame to go around. There is absolutely no doubt that over the years Turkey has been consistently over-promised accession by a slew of European leaders, who grew ever more embarrassed as despite the odds Turkey continued with myriad internal reforms, all designed to meet the EU’s standards.

It has become clear over time that whatever hoops Turkey managed to jump through, a blocking majority of European leaders were not ready to concede the accession they had so blithely offered, never believing they would be forced to live up to their promise. European hypocrisy over Turkey is a poison that has entered the Turkish body politic, with Ankara in response drifting ever farther away.

June 2013 has put an end to what may well have been just a fiction, but a convenient one at that. For a Turkey engaged in everlasting talks with Brussels, safely in NATO and the European economic sphere, using the pretence of membership to push badly needed domestic structural reforms, and solidly pro-western, is a very different animal from a Turkey adrift. Given its economic success, Turkey does have options, playing an increasingly strong regional role in the Middle East and retaining strong bilateral ties with Washington, particularly over military and intelligence matters. Its flowering in the new era of multipolarity—like that of Indonesia, Brazil, South America, and India—heralds an era where rising local and regional powers will count for increasingly more in policy terms compared with far away and preoccupied great powers. Nothing that has happened over the past few weeks changes this structural reality.

4 Responses to “Don’t Call It Spring: Turkey’s Decisive Turn Away From the West”

RichardJuly 9th, 2013 at 10:39 am

Turkey is trying to morph into something that it is not. It was the last Muslim caliphate government and trying to get away from its otherwise conservative Muslim ideology is not going to work.

Esen IleriJuly 9th, 2013 at 12:00 pm

… which brings the question: Which adrift Turkey is more preferable for regional stability? The secular one with a multi party parliamentary experience since 1950 (despite brief military interventions) and with a cautious and dependable foreign policy … or … the ambitious adventurous power hungry one under the despotic majoritarian single-man rule of a muslim brotherhood political islamist?
The answer might seem obvious but then the following question remains: why the hell did the US and the EU promote, nurture (the most influential religious leader in exile holding his grip on the judiciary and law enforcement, Fetullah Gulen is still based in Pennsylvania) and support the latter for the past ten years until it gained almost absolute power? Surely not for the sake of EU access! Could it be that they prefered to sacrifice the former for short sighted interests like carving out more room for their new regional Kurdish allies? The stakes for the west are graver than they think. Isn't it time western foreign policy circles started questioning the consequences of their ill fated stance? Political islam has no "mild" alternative and is no ally for neither the west, nor the Kurds nor for democratic rights and freedoms in the region.

Sierra7July 9th, 2013 at 2:19 pm

esen Ileri:
Good observation.
Unfortunately, no "western" politician would understand it.
Your description can also apply to the recent downfall of Egypt's Morsi……..believing just because "democratically" elected…….etc as to your opinion.

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Emre Deliveli The Kapali Carsi

Emre Deliveli is a freelance consultant, part-time lecturer in economics and columnist. Previously, Emre worked as economist for Citi Istanbul, covering Turkey and the Balkans. He was previously Director of Economic Studies at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara and has has also worked at the World Bank, OECD, McKinsey and the Central Bank of Turkey. Emre holds a B.A., summa cum laude, from Yale University and undertook his PhD studies at Harvard University, in Economics.

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